“You are considered a propagandist and not a journalist.”
In a conversation between Semafor editor-in-chief Ben Smith and Tucker Carlson billed as a forum to address hyper-polarization and trust in news, it was the Fox News host who leveled those words at Smith.
Carlson had been invited to talk about the future of journalism by the yet-to-be-launched Semafor, a news startup with ambitions to compete for English-language readers around the world. (Semafor will start publishing on October 15, co-founder and CEO Justin Smith said.) The appearance brought a hail of criticism down not just on Semafor but the event’s sponsor, one of the most important and influential funders in journalism, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
“We don’t like to be shutting down people’s ability to be heard,” Knight’s VP of journalism, Jim Brady, said earlier this week. Brady, who also spoke at the event, noted that Semafor selected the interviewees.
At a breakneck pace — and with lots of cable-news-y crosstalk — the pre-launch event unfolded at Gallup headquarters in Washington, D.C. on Thursday morning. There was some interesting stuff said about trust, objectivity, profit models, and social media policies! But, inevitably, it was Carlson’s inflammatory comments that caught much of the attention.
Why was Carlson invited? To those who said the invite was to build pre-launch buzz for Semafor … well, I’m writing about the fiasco now, so congratulations. But if Semafor and Knight’s stated reasons for inviting him — to have a conversation about the future of news and get answers to “hard questions” — were the actual benchmark, Carlson’s presence was a miserable failure.
Smith kicked off the conversation with Carlson — who was phoning in from a clothes closet decorated with Ringling Bros. Circus and “Roosevelt Dead!” posters — by asking him whether he “thought white people were superior to other races.”
Carlson, who presides over what “what may be the most racist show in cable news history” and had a top writer resign in 2020 for what Fox News’ own leadership called “horrific racist, misogynistic, and homophobic behavior,” said no.
“100 percent of the people I’m mad at are well-educated white liberals,” Carlson added. “In my mind, the archetype of the person that I don’t like is a 38-year-old female white lawyer with a barren personal life.”
Smith tried to assert control over the interview, frequently reminding Carlson that he gets an hour every weeknight to talk about whatever he wants, and ultimately got a handful of questions in. He used one to ask if Carlson was considering running for U.S. president and another to ask if Carlson felt he’d been “discriminated against as a white Protestant” during his career.
Smith, who was a media columnist at The New York Times and editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News before co-founding Semafor, also asked Carlson if he feels he’s doing anything to address the public’s record-low trust in media.
“I’m trying my very hardest to tell the truth,” Carlson replied. “I mean, it’s hard for me to lie about it anyway, because we have YouTube.”
Carlson added, “Now, I don’t say everything that I think. There are a lot of truths and I don’t tell them all. I leave some out, I shape things, and when I get pissed I do tend to overstate.”
Smith asked her about journalists cultivating brands — or, as Lorenz pointed out as a synonym, their reputations — and pressed her on the difference between bad faith harassment campaigns and constructive criticism.
“But how do you know if — in his heart — he’s bad faith or good faith?” Smith repeatedly asked Lorenz, speaking about one influencer.
Lorenz paused, and answered: “He said he wants to go to war with the media and destroy The Washington Post.”
“That’s like, you know, that’s probably half the people in this room,” Smith replied.
In a different 1:1 interview, Politico founding editor John Harris commented on the uneasy relationships newsroom leaders have with the social media presence of their reporters.
“I think the minimum is, ‘Can you just not cause an international uproar on Twitter?’ That’s our bar,” Harris said. “As The Washington Post demonstrated, ultimately, [newsrooms] are not without levers to enforce that. But they’re pretty severe levers.”
One of the more substantive portions of the event was a panel expertly steered by Semafor’s executive editor Gina Chua that featured journalist Wesley Lowery, The Wall Street Journal’s executive Washington editor Gerald Seib, and Femi Oke, a host at Al Jazeera. The group wrestled the idea of journalistic objectivity — and how newsrooms should be thinking about the standard as public trust in media plummets.
Chua asked the group if today’s news consumers actually care about objectivity as an ideal.
“Listen to readers. They will tell you that they care,” Seib said. “My concern is that if you say objectivity is not possible, you’re essentially admitting defeat, and I think there’s great peril down the road for that for our profession.”
Seib and Oke both connected the lack of trust in journalism to the industry’s longstanding preference to “let the work speak for itself.”
“I think if we’re asking for transparency from the institutions we cover, particularly in the government, we have to practice transparency as well,” Seib said.
Lowery — paraphrasing Walter Lippmann — said too much journalism reflects the world as editors and writers wished it was, opposed to the world as it actually is.
“We spend so much time in our industry trying to appease lunatics instead of just telling the truth, which is our job,” Lowery said.
You can watch the Semafor event on YouTube.
I cannot think of a less useful question to ask someone than the equivalent of “are you a racist?”
— Philip Bump (@pbump) July 7, 2022
the tucker interview is actually a good example of one of the points that i made – how much, if any, of the mainstream media’s trust should be about appeasing people like this (tucker, people who share his clearly not-fact based, racist beliefs)?
I would say none
— Wesley (@WesleyLowery) July 7, 2022
We’re 50 min into the #semafornews launch & I have not heard the word #Democracy once. Lots of influencer & grievance discussion. Society as a dystopian prom is not going to heal our institutions folks. pic.twitter.com/KfvbnLI5BC
— lorelei kelly (@loreleikelly) July 7, 2022